Canada is not a country; it’s a shoe store. The Big Land is not the nickname for Labrador; it’s a popular brand of mattress.
Conversely, Sleman is not beer; it’s a municipality north of a city called Yogyakarta. Also, “air” is water.
Welcome to Indonesia, a country so unlike the Great White North, the two nations only have one obvious thing in common: their size. From end to end — from Haida Gwaii to Newfoundland and from Sumatra to Papua — they are both more than 5,000 kilometres in length.
The biggest differences are obvious without flying more than halfway around the planet (changing planes in Halifax, Montreal, Vancouver and Hong Kong) to finally land in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city.
Canada, of course, is cold while Indonesia is hot. Canada has four seasons, while Indonesia only has two: a dry one and a wet one. Although Canada has a large archipelago in the north, it’s mostly continental mainland, while Indonesia is all archipelago. And while Canada’s land is some of the most sparsely inhabited in the world, Indonesia’s islands are some of the most densely populated anywhere.
Upon arriving in Indonesia, many smaller differences become apparent. For instance, TV satellite dishes don’t point at great angles to the south; they point almost straight up. For the same reason (being so close to the equator) sunsets and sunrises happen very fast.
Traffic drives on the left side of the street, instead of the right. Consequently cars have their steering wheels on the right side. As well, most of the incessantly heavy traffic is composed not of automobiles (of which there are nevertheless a great many), but of small motorcycles.
While the streets themselves (paved, gravelled or cobblestoned) appear much as streets do anywhere in Canada, the sidewalks don’t usually live up to their name. In Indonesia they are normally not used for walking, but rather for parking those many motorcycles, or for providing space for countless tiny businesses that sell things like food, clothing, sunglasses, helmets, souvenirs, umbrellas, stationery, toys and just about anything else anyone might want, or offer services like tailoring, tire repair and transportation.
Most of the buildings beside the sidewalks are different, too. While the same largely featureless glass-and-steel highrises can be found in the cities of both countries, most of the smaller structures are markedly dissimilar. Since Indonesians don’t have to contend with heavy snow, their roofs don’t need to be made of solid wood and be covered with asphalt shingles. Instead, they are built as lattice-works that support interlocking red clay tiles — things that easily break under the weight of a man, let alone under several tons of fluffy white stuff.
Such roofs are only designed to deflect seasonal rains and provide shade from the sun. Similarly, since most Indonesians rarely experience outside temperatures that fall below 20 C (never mind zero) walls require no insulation, sometimes consisting only of woven sheets of bamboo strips. Indeed, some walls are nonexistent — that is, where a Canadian would expect wooden facing (such as in the eaves), there’s just open space instead.
That, incidentally, is a feature that reveals one of the similarities Canada and Indonesia share: a multitude of insects, particularly mosquitoes, which are warded off in Indonesia not by screening off windows and doors (like in Canada), but by hanging nets around beds — although bug coils are common in both countries.
Nature is, in fact, the biggest similarity the two nations enjoy: both are richly green lands when they have the chance to be and both delight in that greenery (when they can), a greenery that in both cases provides habitat to innumerable animal species (when it is allowed).
That, sadly, points to another common feature: their once seemingly boundless wildernesses are quickly vanishing under extreme pressure from nearly unbridled industrial exploitation and population growth. Fortunately, many Canadians and Indonesians also share the desire to save what’s left of their natural world before it’s all gone.
Finally, our two peoples share something else in common: they welcome new friends with open hearts and beautiful smiles.
They let you feel at home and make you miss the place terribly when you’re gone.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.